The greatest advantage that screen has over stage isn’t any of the obvious ones: scale, space, verisimilitude, sweep, special effects, editing/montage. It’s the ability to collapse the distance between actor and audience. The most obvious form this advantage takes is the close-up, but it’s also medium shots and two-shots. The actual physical presence an actor has on stage can only rarely match, or surpass, the emotional presence an actor can have on screen.
That’s assuming, of course, a filmmaker knows enough to put this distance-collapsing to good use. Joel Coen very much does in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” his striking and distinctive version of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” as theater people call it. Coen did the adaptation and directed. It opens in theaters Christmas Day — don’t expect tidings of comfort and joy — and starts streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 14.
The two actors who get most of the close-ups are Denzel Washington, magnificent in the title role, and Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand. Washington has such a commanding presence — this Macbeth is no less warrior king than murderer king — it makes all the more startling those moments when he’s assailed by doubt. Doubt is not an issue for McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, who is indelible in her ferocity. When she charges her husband with being “infirm of purpose,” she’s also announcing that no infirmity, of purpose or otherwise, inheres in her.
There’s an intimacy to this “Macbeth” that’s transfixing. Largely filling the frame with the actors doesn’t do just them a great service. It also does Shakespeare’s language a great service, making it that much easier for the viewer to attend to it. Really, any production of any Shakespeare play, whether on screen or stage, has two primary obligations: to get across the language — hey, it’s only one of the chief glories of human experience — and make as direct as possible the presentation of character. Anything beyond that is basically sound and fury which may, or may not, signify something.
Coen’s serving language and character so well doesn’t mean this “Macbeth” feels stagey or visually constrained. Without being in any way showy, there are various filmic touches. The murder of Banquo (Bertie Carvel) is very excitingly staged. An explosion of leaves declares the arrival of Birnam Wood. An eruption of ravens concludes the movie.
The film is in black and white — all honor to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (”Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Darkest Hour”) — and has a classic 4:3 aspect ratio. That was the projection format of the Studio Era, and “Macbeth” nods to classic Hollywood in having been shot almost entirely on a sound stage, with noirish lighting, and stark, cavernous sets. The overall effect is very late ‘40s, and it works extremely well. The movie feels timeless, as a color film with actual exteriors and less stylized interiors would not.
Every Shakespeare adaptation is its own entity, but each inevitably relates to its predecessors. The most famous movie “Macbeth” is Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957). Visually, the most pertinent here is Orson Welles’s version, from 1948. This one is tougher, tenser, more interested in impact than mood. Mist and Samuel Beckett, rather than liquids and Sigmund Freud, are its chief visual leitmotif and presiding spirt. Welles’s Scotland verged on dreamscape. Coen’s lies somewhere between blasted heath and desert. His fondness for overhead shots (another filmic touch) harkens to the eye of God, except is the idea of God conceivable in so blighted a land?
The excellent supporting cast mixes British and American actors. The mightiness of Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan makes Macbeth’s treachery all the more impressive — and heinous. As Macduff, Corey Hawkins (”In the Heights”) brings a sleek, tensile gravity to that pivotal role. Moses Ingram (”The Queen’s Gambit”), as his wife, has the most harrowing moments in the movie and does not falter. Harry Melling (yes, Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” movies, but also so affecting in the Coen brothers’ “Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) is a fine Malcolm. Playing the Witches, Kathryn Hunter embodies this spectral, ominous film at its most spectral and ominous.
It’s Washington who dominates, of course, and not just because Macbeth dominates the play. His presence is that commanding. We first encounter him laughing, and that laughter seems very far away when he comes to meet his end. It’s indicative of how far he ranges over the course of a taut 105 minutes. Washington turns 67 (!) on Dec. 28. Give him a few more years, and what a Lear he could make. Or Prospero. Maybe Ethan Coen will direct one of those, and he and Joel can do the other together.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
Written and directed by Joel Coen; adapted from the Shakespeare play. Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Moses Ingram. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square; starts streaming on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14. 105 minutes. R (violence).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.